Designing Life: A Look At Synthetic Biology

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Designing life from scratch used to be the job of science fiction writers. However, an emerging group of biologists has successfully turned the idea of constructing completely new life forms into an innovative scientific discipline known as synthetic biology.

Drew Endy at the Silverstein Lecture SeriesDrew Endy at the Silverstein Lecture SeriesDesigning life from scratch used to be the job of science fiction writers. However, an emerging group of biologists has successfully turned the idea of constructing completely new life forms into an innovative scientific discipline known as synthetic biology. 

Synthetic biologists can create new organisms by inserting custom-designed DNA, or genetic information, into living microbial cells. This DNA is tailored by researchers so the organism will perform a specific function. Far from engineering the fearsome, mutant creatures that populate the world of science fiction, however, they plan to construct organisms—for now at the microscopic level—that can do anything from manufacturing disease-fighting drugs to creating ultra-clean biofuel.

Dr. Drew Endy, a synthetic biology pioneer, recently visited Northwestern University to speak about his work as part of the Silverstein Lecture Series.

During his presentations and in an interview with Science in Society, Endy, who is an assistant professor at Stanford University, emphasized how synthetic biology might seem entirely new, but its core ideas are really as old as humanity itself. “A long time ago, at the beginning of the stone age, we humans decided that rocks were useful,” said Endy.

“We could build a wall or a dam. But … later on in the Stone Age, folks became dissatisfied with rock, so they ground it up and made new synthetic rock which is called concrete. I would [thus] argue that the big revolutions [in science] come from the tools that help in the process of building. And that, to me, is what synthetic biology is really about.”

Perhaps one of the greatest examples of the promise of synthetic biology is in manufacturing lifesaving drugs—especially ones that are difficult to produce or are too expensive for the people who need them. One such drug is artemisinin, an anti-malarial medication derived from the leaves of a type of wormwood. Treating malaria is a significant public health challenge in much of the world, and the unavailability of drugs like artemisinin is a serious obstacle in combating the disease. However, some synthetic biologists have recently concentrated on reprogramming yeast to artificially manufacture artemisinin, making it less expensive to produce and more widely available. Such efforts, said Endy, have been one the field’s primary focuses.

Not only could synthetic biology one day lead to better availability of drugs, Endy also discussed the possibility of creating an entirely new method of fighting disease, which he called “living therapeutics.” For instance, by engineering special sensors in bacteria, synthetic biologists might one day create a class of pre-programmed bacteria that seek out and destroy malignant tumor cells. “Health and medical applications, from biosynthesis of chemicals to living therapeutics, seem pretty reasonable as two examples of expected applications [of synthetic biology],” said Endy.

Moving forward, much of the promise of synthetic biology—like many scientific disciplines—depends on favorable economics and research funding within an equitable and fair research environment. Historically, many of the laboratories that pioneered synthetic biology enjoyed exclusive legal rights—and the related profits—over specific genetic functions.

Acknowledging that open access to this genetic information is key to the future of bioengineering, Endy started the BioBricks Foundation, a not-for-profit organization. Through BioBricks, researchers can register “standard biological parts,” or pieces of genetic information that encode specific functions, and make them available to the public and other scientists.

“It’s free for people to use…An example from a different area would be a company like Google. Google is built on top of open and free software … I think that will be a very important innovation in the economic and legal frameworks around synthetic biology that will make [research] communities, perhaps the whole world, more competitive.”

In an interview with Science in Society, Stanford bioengineer Drew Endy elaborates on the current funding levels and dangers of synthetic biology, and provides insight to the politics and theological implications of the field.

Q. Do you feel that funding levels are sufficient to carry out the kind of research you want done? 

A. Funding levels are negligible. They’re nowhere close to being matched to the opportunities. It’s a new field, and there’s been a significant underinvestment in the tools supporting synthetic biology going back decades. One could smartly spend, just on tools alone, about $25 million a year, not on any specific research project but just on things like getting better at building DNA, making better component libraries, and sharing them openly.

Q. Does having genetic code made freely available pose any security risks?

A. The answer is yes, there are some. They’re relatively well-known as they exist today, and are few in number, thankfully. For example, if you could use DNA synthesis to reconstruct genomes, then you might be able to obtain the genomes for human pathogens that are otherwise difficult to acquire. Ebola would be one example, where we don’t know, to my understanding, the natural reservoir of the virus. So if you wanted to get access to Ebola, you would have to either wait for the next outbreak, fly somewhere, risk death and return. Or you could go on the Internet, download the DNA sequence and pay somebody $20,000 to make it for you. So that’s an interesting possibility.

What could we do to prepare against such a misapplication? Actually, this one is relatively well-prepared against. We could be in close communication with all the constructors of synthetic DNA and ask them to check what they’re making so that they don’t unwittingly make for somebody the genome of a hemorrhagic fever. Let’s start with that. There’s still the question of, would you want the sequences of human pathogens freely available on the Internet? I think the research community has strongly come out in favor of keeping the sequences open. There aren’t a lot of examples, if any, of diseases being cured in secret. So it just doesn’t seem like the way to go.

Q. Have you ever been challenged by religious arguments against your work? 

A. I don’t know that it’s a religious question. I’ve had questions in the form, “what’s wrong with the DNA that God gives us, or what’s wrong with the DNA from nature?” I don’t know if anything is wrong with it. One thing to note is that we can learn how things work by taking them apart and by putting them back together … so I think that’s very consistent with somebody who would want to celebrate the work of God, if that’s your worldview, by understanding how things work and what’s out there.

Q. What do you say to the argument that only God should do the type of reconstructing that you’re researching?

A. I think it’s a different question if the concerns have to do with making something new. I don’t view making something new, whether it’s reprogramming the bouquet of a bacteria or a more serious project. I don’t view those projects as creating life, but rather construction projects. For me as an engineer, there’s a big difference between the words creation and construction. Creation implies I have unlimited power, perfect understanding of the universe, and the ability to manipulate matter at a godlike level. That’s not what I have. I have an imperfect understanding, a budget, limited resources, and I can only manipulate things quite crudely. In that context, with those constraints, I’m a more humble constructor.

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